Sunday, March 22, 2009

On Politics and Morality

It seems like I was supposed to say this in an earlier post, but never really mentioned this. In my previous post, I talked rather abstractly about morality. The question I never really dealt with is what does that have to do with politics?

Consider that we say that people, in general ought to be moral. It would seem that the government also ought to be moral. Whatever we mean by moral government, there are 2 reasons why we should want a moral government.

1. The government consists of people too. And the people in government, just like the rest of us ought to act in moral ways.

2. The general populace (i.e you and I and Ah Gong) ought not to support a government we deem immoral. Or maybe, we ought not to support immoral policies. At the very least, the we should take moral considerations seriously when evaluating government.

When thinking about morality and government, it is important to draw the distinction between what is lawful and what is moral. In an ideal case, what is moral is lawful, and what is immoral is unlawful. Or maybe that is not necessarily the case. Maybe morality is best promoted by other indirect means. Any way that we look at it formulation of law requires a moral impetus whether it is in the direct implementation, or if not, in the motivation of the law. To more clearly analyse society and politics, we should aim to separate the 2 conceptually. The way to do that is using  state of nature theories. 

A state of nature is a theoretical construct, a thought experiment, deviced by philosophers like Hobbes and Locke. It is useful because it gives us an opportunity to look at morality without having complicating factors like government approval, or busybody neighbours who go tch tch, or social disapproval etc. Without allt hese socio-political factors influencing our actions, what is it right to do? Imagine that you are like Robinson Crusoe, and stuck on an island all by yourself (instead of 4 million other people). You keep yourself alive by fishing, gathering food, hunting, building yourself a shelter etc. (As if we all have undergone jungle survival training). Certainly one aspect of ethics is about how we treat nature and animals and the environment. However, that is not our immediate focus. Let's say that in your explorations, you happen to come upon someone else who has also been on the island for some time. How do you treat the other person? Do you beat him up and try to dominate him? Make your slave? Become his friend? What if he is an asshole? If you kill him and take his stuff, noone will know. Should you still do it? Why ? What happens when more and more people join the island?

Another situation to consider is: lets say you go to sleep, but when you wake, are in a stateless society. It is full of strangers. How do we deal with it? Does your labour contribute to a common pool? Or do you own what you make/ grow / receive by trading? Are you entitled to something just because you need it?  Or must you earn it, by exchanging your labour or you property for it? What is the principle by which you act? The greatest good for the greatest number? Or something else?

And let me jump the gun a bit. Government in general is coercive. It taxes you for things that you do not use or want. It makes you pay them money and threatens to jail you if you do not. It punishes you for doing the wrong things. It also prevents you from punishing other people who have done wrong to you. If other people did that to us, i.e stole from us made us do things that we did not want to do, we would think that they were real jerks. We would even call them immoral. Is the government immoral? Or, if the government is moral, what are the conditions that a government must satisfy in order to be called moral?

Just some questions for everybody to ponder. I also hope that this gives hints as to where I'm heading with all of this.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Often when people talk about various issues, this word often comes up - Morality

What is it?, and what do people mean when they use the word?

I will give a nominal definiton/description, and after that, we will see where w can go from there.

Morality is categorical, universal, normative, authoratative and inescapable.

Normative - Here all I'm saying is that morality talks about oughts. e.g., we ought to do X or we should not do Y.
This is opposed to descriptives like the cat is black, the night is dark.

Categorical - We should do it no matter what. For example, We ought not to kill innocents for our pleasure
This is opposed to hypothetical which is merely conditional e.g. If we want to eat a sandwhich, I should get off my butt and make one, or, If I want to make a good impression, I ought to dress neatly. It doesn't make sense to say: If we want to be good people we ought not to kill innocents. Does this mean that if we do not care about being good people, it is ok to kill innocents?

Universal - This means that the rule is correct for all people.
Instead of the rule being correct only for Jews, or Indians or Chinese or Americans, or Germans or Males etc.

Inescapable - This means that we cannot escape the duties that morality imposes on us. If we say something is wrong, it means that we ought not to do it, and we are making a mistake if we do it

Authoratative - This would be that moral statements have authority. It is arguable whether moral statements have the most authority. But at the very least, we should give them some significant weightage in our deliberations.

The above should be true for any moral theory, whether it is consequentialist, or deontological ethics. Whether moral properties, as I described them above, exist is another question.

The above may be fairly crude, so lets see if we can refine it. Please comment.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Both Parents must Jiang Hua Yu?? - Response to TODAY article 18/3/2009

So I saw yesterday's Today article asnd decided that, well.... Even though I said that I would try a deontological stance in my criticism, since no one is actually being coerced, and since our tax rate isnt really that bad either, a more technocratic approach wouldnt be too bad. So here is me ranting away at speak mandarin policy

Seriously, there are a variety of ways ways we could criticise this. Now, Lee Kuan Yew makes the claim that students will learn english anyway even if both parents speak mandarin at home The government has said quite repeatedly that Chinese Singaporeans' command of mandarin has decreased. (The assumption of course is that their command of english is so much better. In fact MM said that the local environment is predominantly english speaking). Lets say that we take the government at their word: That standards of mandarin in society really  have fallen.

What does this show? That 30 years of Speak Mandarin Campaign by the government was inneffective. All that money spent on all those posters. All those trees cut down to print those posters. All that ink wasted. This does not look good for the PAP government.

But let's say that no, the PAP is wrong about this. Let's say that a large fragment of society actually is more conversant in mandarin than in english. Im an Indian guy. I dont speak mandarin. Its been 44 years since PAP came into power. Give it at least 35 years since PAP's Bilingual policy in schools. (Actually it is likely to be longer) Yet, I have difficulty communicating with many of the coffeeshop/canteen aunties and uncles. If I am not mistaken, these are our average singaporean, our heartlanders, our salt of the earth... If they cannot string together a sentence in english, isnt asking parents to speak mandarin at home counterproductive?

We do not have to assume  that if people's mandarin is poor, their english must be good. (Though what language they will speak in if they do not know mandarin, dialect or english, I dont know.) Let's say that both mandarin and english are poor. Which language should the government prioritise? Mandarin?? Its not like it is actually the mother tongue right? For a lot of chinese singaporeans, the dialect is the mother tongue. For oppurtunities with China? Maybe, but not all local chinese will be going to china for business. Unless we are considering merging with china to create some greater china, there is not reason why all local chinese should be fluent in mandarin. English, is still the lingua franca of the world. It is the means of communication between the races.  People in China are trying to pick up english so that they can trade with the rest of the world. Moreover, for simply communicating in mandarin with PRCs, the current level of proficiency seems fine. However, the current level of spoken english in Singapore is abyssymal. In fact, even with the rise of china, english is still going to play a major role in society. However, to imagine that our Singlish is sufficient to communicate with an increasingly cosmopolitan society is laughable. Our government, if it is in the business of telling people what to speak at home, should be telling them to speak English, which is far more useful in communicating to people of all ethnicities instead of just people from china, tiwan and hong kong.

By the way, this brings up a related issue. People get so caught up in the speak mandarin campaign, if the government cares about the cultural wellbeing of all of its citizens, where is speak tamil campaign? Where is speak malay campaign? In fact, my experiences with the speak mandarin campaign have been negative.  I went to Anderson Secondary School. In casual conversations, my chinese friends would quickly revert to speaking mandarin even though I was part of the conversation. This usually ended up with me asking for translations. (Ok, I'll assume for courtesy's sake that my friends weren't talking about me behind my back) During CHinese New Year Celebrations in school, the whole concert was conducted in mandarin without translations. I didnt even bother asking for translations this time. What for, I'm Indian, an ethnic minority, I should resign myself to second class citizen status right? (Please, if you cannot get the sarcasm in the previous sentence, take a long look in the mirror: You are either stupid or racist or both) To keep it short, there was more of the same in the army and even in University. I'm not accusing people, who forget and speak chinese while conversing with non chinese, racist. I'm saying that the Speak Mandarin policy, by default, creates a society that marginalises minorities. It makes it harder for us to mix with people of other races. 

Weird thing: MM said that as the trends were going, Mandarin would become the mother tongue in 2 generations. Remember guys, the role of the mother tongue is supposedly to be the language of traditional culture, to allow us tohave the best of both worlds, i.e. to modernise without absorbing western decadence (fat chance) by keeping the so called language of tradition and morality. So, what the hell is mandarin doing if it is not the mother tongue. And how does changing the mother tongue from dialect to mandarin keep our vaunted traditions. And if we are ok with our mothertongue changing, whats wrong with letting it change to english while we are at it. Just to retain an asian flavour? If we want to sell out, why not sell out for the biggest buck. lets become the type of singaporean who barely knows his tradtions, who eats at burger king and mcdonalds all the time, who speaks with a fake american accent (like Robin Leong) and to top it off, talks like a mixture of Amnesty International and Chee Soon Juan: talks a lot about rights and freedoms, but don't have an inkling of what they mean. 

Finally, the big question, what business is it of the government's what we do at home. I earlier said that it was not coercive. But, my point is 2 fold. First, what consenting adults do within their own house is nobody else's business but theirs. They can use their mouths for anything, stick whatever body parts they have anywhere they want etc. Secondly, I want to put forward a fairly radical notion (in the Singaporean context) for consideration: A government has no business in providing any substantive good to its citizens. All, a government can do is provide a formal good. In future posts, I will aim to elucidate what is a formal good, and what is a substantive good. And we will actually deal with the proposition. It is worth considering at least because it consists of a truly radical secularism: A spearation between all substantive good and the state,  not just religion.

Next post: Morality

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Why Bother With Philosophy?

Why do we care whether there is a common philosophical underpinning to our actions, or government actions? 

The answer is, very simply, to answer the neverending question of "why?"

Why should we act the way we do?
Why should the government pursue one policy instead of others?
Why actions by the government legitimate?
Is the government legitimate in the first place?
What makes some actions right?

What I would like to do in subsequent posts is develop a few points in no particular order:

1. The criticism from anarchy - why do anarchists think government is immoral
2. Consequentialism and why I reject it
3. Deontological ethics and why I think that they offer a better account of morality
4. State of nature and why  it is important
5. What are the proper justifications of a state
6. What are the conditions that these justifications impose on the proper functioning of the state i.e. are there things that the state can do which are immoral?
7. Which of Singapore's policies may be considered moral or immoral. (Will take up many posts and will be done on an ad hoc basis)
8. What directions should Singapore take?
9. What role should an opposition play in a PAP dominated government?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Mission Statement

First things first: Welcome to The Renaissance Man. Why the name? Well, yours truly considers himself (with all the humility that entails) to be one: scientist, philosopher, political theorist, fledgeling programmer (really fledgeling) among other things.Why am I writing this blog? Because I feel that I have something to say and want to set the agenda (duh) and because I think that I am filling a hole that needs to be filled. The  political blogosphere in Singapore is severely lacking. How?? There are plenty of political blogs that talk about all sorts of stuff that the government does; about how our press about why the government does this, does that, bad baaad gahmen... so on and so forth. They provide a valuable service by bringing to light different alternative views that cannot be found in the forum page in the Straits Times. That is all well and good and they should continue to do so. However, I have yet to see a SINGAPOREAN Blog which attempts to deal with the serious poltical and moral philosophical issues pertaining to the Singaporean context. 

The PAP allegedly eschew any sort of ideology and instead claim to be pragmatists. What do they mean by 'pragmatist'? Pragmatic could mean whatever is politically convenient. That however is not a very nice thing to say and it is not likely very true either. To give the PAP their due, whent they say pragmatist, they mean consequentialist. The PAP believes that it has to do what it believes is the best for singaporeans. i.e. they do whatever works. In itself it is fine. However, that stil constitutes an ideology. And to be fair, I mean ideology in the best sense: a certain ethical set of ideals, principles, doctrines... Given that the PAP are consequentialists, Lee Kuan Yew's criticism of opposition parties makes sense. If the policies that PAP pursues are "whatever works", why shouldn't anybody interested in politics join the PAP instead of the opposition? After all, it seems reasonable that a person with differing ideas might be able to air them if he joined the PAP instead of the opposition.(after all there is visible disagreement within the PAP ranks some of the time) (More cannot be said without running afoul of those pesky OB markers) Big tent PAPism does put a wrinkle in opposition plans: especially if the opposition are all consequentialists too. So far, politics in Singapore can be divided into 2 types: bread and butter issues, and crackpot politics. The People's Action Party, Workers Party and Singapore Democratic Alliance basically only differ on how to tackle bread and butter issues. Singapore Democratic Party is just a crackpot agency. They spout off all sorts of things without accumulating proper evidence first. Chee Soon Juan spends more of his time with self defeating gestures than not. He is worse than useless. Given the extant diversity of opinion within the PAP, WP and SDA are not significantly different from the PAP, they are just less experienced. Why vote for PAP lite when the PAP is already there? Hence, a true opposition voice will propose a diametrically opposing ideology, not just different ways of carrying out the same ideological principles.

What principle could an opposition Party build itself on? Well, if the PAP are consequentialists, this hypothetical party must adopt a deontologist (duty/rights oriented) approach. This blog aims to explore what we can do within this deontological framework. It will deal with moral issues, both specific and general, poltiical philosophy, and once in a while, with any political bugbears of mine. Note: It will cross some OB (out of bounds) markers. I will talk about gays, religion, evolution etc. I may come across as criticising certain religions (I really dont intend to be offensive) and very likely also the government. While I try not to post unsubstantiated statements about the PAP, some may get past my guard in the heat of the moment. However, insofar as criticising the PAP is concerned, a distinction must be drawn between saying unsubstantiated things about the PAP and disagreeing about the morality and legitimacy of actions and statements known to be made by the PAP. I will try to refrain from the former, but I will most definitely be engaging in the latter, whenever I see the need to. If I do slip up and make unsubstantiated statements about the government, I appeal to readers to inform me (I dont want to end up like Chee Soon Juan) and to the PAP to have the forbearance to not slap me with a lawsuit at the first instance. I will retract my statement if my error is pointed out. I understand the legitmacy of defending oneself against slander and refuse to be a slanderer. I, however aim to be an honest critic, and should I ever cross the line, would like to be warned.

The reader has been warned: Certain OB markers may be crossed, but no posts will be libelous or tasteless. I reserve the right to moderate comments as and when I like. I however will only remove tasteless comments by trolls. Enjoy

Edit: I have decided to change the name of the post: Finding my feet and all that... Given the URL, the name will be A Singaporean Renaissance. Any comments or criticisms are welcome